By Professor Mushirul Hasan
Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
About five hundred metres west of the Red Fort stands an enduring monument to Shah Jahan’s passion-the Jama Masjid, an extraordinary specimen of architectural extravaganza built during the years 1650-1656. On its completion, it symbolized the high point in Mughal architecture. The following description is useful:
Take one of the three pyramidal flights of steps on the east, north or south leading up to the main courtyard that has a large marble tank. Here the devout wash before offering their prayer. Once you mingle with them you realize why the great mosque has become a spiritual oasis.
The grandfather of Maulvi Zakaullah, the historian at the Delhi College, died in sijda performing the namaz. His family believed that Allah had blessed him and ensured his place in paradise. “Mir Mahdi,” wrote Mirza Ghalib in solemnity, “have you forgotten my accustomed ways? Have I ever once missed listening to the recitation of the Quran at the Jama Masjid during the blessed month of Ramzan? How could I stay in Rampur during Ramzan?
More generally, Muhammad Iqbal describes the impact of Azan in the following lines.
Again, the glory and splendour of the Masjid beckons - from sunrise to sunset - the faithful to unite in congregation and reinforces Iqbal’s assertion that the slave and master perform the namaz under the same roof.
Today, the same Masjid, the theme of this richly illustrated book by Mr. NL Batra, stands majestically on top of a large hill. It symbolizes many things to many people, a site of religious piety and devotion, for example. To some, it is also a vibrant symbol of secular India, a country inhabited by nearly 140 million Muslims whose religious rights are safeguarded by a constitution that is both democratic and secular. When the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day, scores of people hurriedly walk through the crowded bazaars to take the flight of stairs leading to the spacious courtyard of the Jama Masjid. This is testimony of living Islam in the Indian environment.
The great mosque has witnessed the changing fortunes of Shahjahanabad, ‘the Sovereign City in Mughal India’ from 1639-1739. It started with the steady decline of the Mughal Empire, followed by its final denouement. Thanks to Lord Lake, the British presence was felt in the early days of the nineteenth century. Soon, stories of their stranglehold over Aurangzeb’s inept successors began circulating in the bazaars. The anti-British pamphlet plastered on the Jama Masjid - Risala-I Fatha-i-Islam - offered a flicker of hope to just a handful who sought to oust the farangis from Shahjahanabad. But the 1857 uprising burst like a bubble.
Delhi was stormed on September 14, 1857. The minarets of Jama Masjid, a mute witness to the plight of a beleaguered Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor, saw it all. A few days later, the Masjid itself was taken over. Officers and soldiers clambered up the minaret and “saw the whole city and country like a map below our feet; all Delhi was ours”. They danced about, drank beer and brandy, and lit fire in the mosque. More celebration took place at the home of colonel Baird Smith. Midnight came, corks popped, fireworks exploded.
From the top of the Ridge an officer in the Engineering Corps gazed down at a picturesque city: the red walls and fine gateways of the palace, the splendid Jama Masjid, the red walls with the bastions, the Yamuna with its green banks; “altogether a beautiful in most interesting view”. By October, many of the structures between Lal Qula and the Masjid were razed to the ground to provide the fort a clear field of fire. “Where is Delhi?” Mirza Ghalib anguished. “By God, it is not a city now. It is a camp. It is a cantonment…” “I tell you without exaggeration,” He told his friend, “that from the Jama Masjid to the Rajghat Gate is a barren wilderness, and if the bricks piled here and there were taken away it would be absolutely bare.” The British seized the Jama Masjid, sold the Fatehpuri Masjid to a banker, and used the Zinat-ul Masjid as a bakery. Mirza Ghalib, living in Gali Qasimjaan, bemoaned:
The Jama Masjid remained under British occupation until 1862. to one of his friends, Ghalib reported: “News of the King’s death appeared in Awadh Akhbar, but I’ve not seen it confirmed anywhere…They say that the Jama Masjid is to be given back. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s true.” Finally, on December 16, 1862, he informed the same friend, “You seek news of Delhi and Alwar accept my greetings. The Jama Masjid has been returned. On the steps of the Ghitli Qabar side, the Kabab-sellers have set up shop, and eggs and hens and pigeons are on sale.”
The Masjid would have been leveled to the ground if Lord Palmerton had his way. Some wanted a Christian cathedral to be built in its place. But better sense prevailed. Canning, the British viceroy, urged the Prime Minister not to ask for anything to be done against the religion of either race. Other officials scotched the proposal to remove the tank of the Jama Masjid for the convenience of the Punjab Infantry, and ordered that the Infantry be shifted from the Masjid to the cattlesheds in Daryaganj.
Except for a flurry of activity during the Khilafat movement in the early 1920s when Swami Shraddhanand spoke from Jama Masjid’s pulpit, an eloquent testimony to Hindu-Muslim amity then, life in the around the mosque remained generally quiet after the 1857 tumult, the British wielded the big stick to drive out the recalcitrant elements and reduced their detractors into submission or willing collaborators. From the 1860s onwards, the winds of the nationalist ferment did not blow across Shahjahanabad, though a few sporadic outbursts caused concern in bureaucratic circles. In general, the imperial progress became smooth and steady. This was exemplified by the state entry of King George V, crowned emperor of India on December 12, 1912. Astride a horse on a perfect winter’s day with a bright sun, blue sky and cool breeze, his procession passed through Red Fort between the stately fort and the gleaming domes of Jama Masjid.
In the words of Akbar Ilahabadi, the poet:
I saw the height of the British raj
The splendour of the throne and crown
I saw the ways of today’s world
And the face of the emperor Curzon.
What a great event this one
A ball in the royal fort
Every hall illuminated
The tales of the past come alive
Yet, this elaborate and grand extravaganza turned out to be the last one. As the Indian flag fluttered on the ramparts of the Red Fort, once the site of the trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, the curtain was drawn on the British Empire. India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ began on that midnight hour, and the nation’s soul, as Jawaharlal Nehru recorded in his memorable speech, found utterance.
The author, photographer and the publisher of this book have combined well to produce this excellent pictorial book. Indeed, they have done an admirable job. Most of the photographs illustrate that the Jama Masjid is a sacred Muslim site. It will remain so in secular India. But, lest we forget, this splendid structure that has, for centuries, attracted millions, is also an integral part of our common religious and cultural inheritance. Claims of individuals and groups apart, we must all contribute to its protection and preservation. A national monument has to be looked after by the nation, by the civic and institutional bodies and not be religious trusts alone.
It is amazing that while most of the magnificent buildings constructed during the Mughal dynasty have been detailed by historians, architects and travelers to India in the past and the present, one of the finest mosques in India remains virtually undocumented and undiscovered in print. With the exception of passing references to this mosque, there does not appear to be any comprehensive book to be found on the Jama Masjid.
It is this gap that I have attempted to fill in this book, Call of the Soul; an exercise close to my heart that, in a sense, became both, my mission and my passion for many years.
I was fortunate to have worked at the Jama Masjid for more than a decade as part of a conservation and preservation project conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The organization handles the maintenance, conservation, preservation and restoration of more than 5,000 monuments in India that are of national and historical importance. The conservation and restoration work carried out by the ASI for decades also needs to be mentioned, as it has not received the attention it richly deserves.
I have worked at the ASI for more than forty years. My early work there, in addition to the execution of restoration and conservation projects, involved the preparation of detailed drawings of every part of the Jama Masjid. This brought me closer to the mosque and my desire to write a book on the marvelous monument grew. I had earlier written a book on heritage conservation and in a way was preparing myself for this book which is indeed a call of the soul.
As the manuscript began to take shape, I realized that there is so much more to the Jama Masjid than the edifice itself. For, it is not only a place of worship or an architectural marvel or a historic monument. Its arches and domes narrate varied stories of the days gone by.
Let the pages of this book take you on a journey through the Jama Masjid, where time and tradition come together to weave a historic tale.
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